Nato may send 200,000 to Kosovo

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The Independent Online
AS RENEWED violence erupted in Kosovo, Nato military chiefs stepped up detailed preparations for the politically charged option of sending ground troops to Kosovo. Up to 200,000 men could be required, depending on the outcome of negotiations between Belgrade and the ethnic Albanians on a settlement of the conflict.

Early yesterday, Yugoslav security forces killed 25 ethnic Albanians in a raid on a suspected rebel hideout. Later, Yugoslav army tanks began firing at Kosovo Liberation Army positions near the village of Ljupce, about nine miles north of Pristina.

Panicking refugees, who had taken cover in Albanian homes in the area to escape fighting two days earlier, piled on tractors and horse carts to flee what they feared was an imminent onslaught. One Serb policeman was killed in the attack on the village of Rogovo, about 45 miles south- west of Pristina, near the Albanian border. International monitors confirmed the "shocking" death toll, which the Albanians claimed was brought about by an army assault on a civilian bus.

The raid occurred as the six-nation Contact Group called all parties in the conflict to an international conference next week at Rambouillet near Paris to negotiate a settlement within seven days, granting "substantial autonomy" - but not independence - to the Albanian-majority province.

If these talks succeed, then deployment of Nato troops on the ground will be essential.

"Clearly, guaranteeing implementation of the deal will be a key part of the negotiations," a Nato official said. "Otherwise the agreement will not hold up, especially where you have a hell of a lot of weapons, a proliferation of armed groups, a legacy of hatred and history of human rights abuse."

Germany yesterday joined Britain and France in pledging troops to police an autonomy deal, and Washington is edging towards acceptance of the idea.

Even so Nato officials admit that it is extremely difficult to plan precisely for a ground troop presence, when the shape of any political settlement is still unknown.

It remains to be seen for example whether unarmed verifiers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (Osce) would continue to have a role.

Three scenarios have been outlined by military planners. These suggest that 36,000 is the minimum number of troops required to monitor a ceasefire and peace agreement if the talks go ahead and produce the desired result. A 2,300 strong French-led Nato unit stationed in Macedonia for the evacuation of Osce monitors would probably provide the vanguard of this presence. If talks break down with no agreement on the political future of Kosovo but a ceasefire holds, then Nato planners estimate that 60,000 men will be needed - as well as an explicit agreement with President Milosevic on the terms of a ground troop presence, Nato diplomats said.

If talks fail and there is no ceasefire then 200,000 troops would be required to impose peace. This would drag Nato into a protracted engagement and even full-scale war with the Serbs. Nato planners say troop deployment in this case would have to be preceded by an aerial bombing campaign to cripple Serb defences.

It is conceivable but unlikely that Sfor, the 34,000 strong Nato troop presence in Bosnia,would be "siphoned off" to boost the numbers in Kosovo, one Nato official said adding: "We will still need a strong presence in Bosnia."